A Day in the Life of a BTH Teacher


By: Sonia Pothraj, 8th Grade Chemistry 
June 23, 2015

Sonia Pothraj

Experiences change as we do, at least in my own experience returning to Breakthrough for a second summer.

Last summer, I deeply loved the community and its energy; I was so fortunate to have formed meaningful relationships and met many compelling people. The same is 100% true of this summer. Yet again Breakthrough has attracted warm, fascinating staff, teaching fellows, and students, all of whom push me to improve as a person, love more, and be more selfless.

That said, experiencing Breakthrough for a second summer has pushed me to contrast the two summers and see both how I’ve grown since a year ago and where I stand to grow. In retrospect, last summer, I was more self-centered, unaware, and not fully present. I was too attached to everything, particularly criticism and perceptions of myself and others. I was prideful. At times, I thought of myself as funny, warm, compelling; at other times, I thought of myself as foolish, negligent, unprofessional. My field of vision only included my interactions with others. Spotlight effect was in full force- I believed to be more noticed than I really was. As a result, I was blind. I didn’t fully see others. I didn’t throw myself away in each interaction and offer as much love and compassion to each encounter as I could have.

This summer feels different. Each moment feels precious. As silly as it sounds, writing the objective on a marker board in the solitude of morning feels just as momentous as having a meaningful conversation or messing around with TFs and students. I no longer view this summer as a step. I haven’t thought about medical school or the future (near or far) at all. I used to view life in discrete chunks (summer internships, medical school, career, marriage, family, etc.) and schedule time so rigidly. Now, every day of Breakthrough is another day of life for which I am so incredibly grateful.

Teacher Material

By: Kate Moss, 8th grade Literature
July 23, 2014

Katie Moss

I used to think that I was not ‘cut out’ to be a teacher. I viewed the ability to be a teacher as an intangible, innate quality that only a few extremely ‘patient’ people possessed.

I became a part of Breakthrough last summer expecting to confirm my suspicion that I was not one of these people. It did not take me long, however, to realize that I was wrong.

People are not ‘cut out’ to be teachers—passionate people committed to working hard and giving 100% every day are the ones who have success in the classroom. I have learned a lot in my past two summers with Breakthrough.

I learned that I want to pursue a career as a teacher when I graduate in May 2015, and because of the extensive support and professional development I received from Breakthrough I feel prepared.

But that is most definitely not the most important lesson that I learned. I learned that hard work and positive risks yielded results. I found out that 12 year olds make great role models. I learned that we could all relate to the rawness of The Watsons Go to Birmingham and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian, despite our backgrounds.

I found out that communication and collaboration with peers refines and improves your own craft. I learned that respect yields respect and vulnerability is the most powerful human emotion. All of these lessons are attached to narratives that would far exceed the maximum length of this blog post, because every day is a learning experience.

I am thrilled by the profession of teaching because every single day we get to make a decision—today I will be better than I was yesterday—and in improving my own practice, I have the agency to be a positive force in someone else’s life.

I want to give students the opportunity to overcome externalities and form compelling narratives. I want to empower them to bring that narrative wherever they go and to use it to shape the lives of others and create a cycle of justice that will create a more empathetic citizenry.

I think I can speak for the other Breakthrough teachers when I say this is why we get up every morning and scream at the top of our lungs at bridge and breakfast step.

On the second to last Thursday of Breakthrough Houston this summer, one of my students asked me how I was doing. I told her I was fine and asked her how she was. She responded that she was great. “Great?” I asked. “Yes,” she responded. “I’m great because I am exhausted.” I gave her a puzzled look, and she continued. “You see Ms. Kate, I am tired because I worked hard today. It feels good to work hard.”

I am confident Mayra’s zest for exhaustion will stay with me for a long time. If she can be excited about being tired, I can too.



Ineffective M&Ms

By: Darby Thompson, 7th grade Writing
July 21, 2014

Darby Thompson

I admit it: It was a shameless bribe.

The lesson covered Method and Meaning, or M&M, Thesis Statements for literary analysis essays and I promised M&Ms to both partners in a group once they constructed an effective statement. Immediately, the students turned to their partners and began brainstorming.

About three minutes later, a student’s hand shot up, fingers wiggling with excitement.

“What’s an adjective for ‘aggressive’?” the student gushed.

I signaled her to follow me to my computer, closed PowerPoint and opened thesaurus.com.

Instantly, an epidemic of SAT vocabulary words overtook my students’ sentences. “Aggressive” became “confrontational.” “Angry” became “ferocious.” No word was safe from the ruthless thesaurus pandemic.

Several minutes later, two partners urgently signaled me over. As I approached, they eagerly pointed to their M&M Thesis Statements, injected with polysyllabic adjectives and sprinkled with eraser dust from ordering and reordering the words. They proudly sat up in their seats, cleared their throats and annunciated every word as they read. After they read, they smiled at their papers, realizing then that they didn’t need me to tell them what they already understood: Their M&M Thesis Statements were spot-on.

I rushed to the back of the room, tore open the bag of M&Ms and excitedly tossed a pre-packaged pack onto each of their desks.

“Now, edit your evidence,” I challenged.

I bounced around the classroom, listening to sophisticated and developed M&M Thesis Statements. I tossed each group member his or her M&Ms, high-fived students for their analysis and pushed them to edit their evidence. I watched students race to the back of the room to use the thesaurus, knocking into the metal desk, the clanking noise startling the students engaged in a debate about the most effective example of simple diction in the passage.

Fifty-five minutes of analysis later, I announced that they could pack up, and it wasn’t until then that I noticed it.

On the edge of every desk- buried under papers about formulas for sentence frames, directions for embedding evidence and definitions of literary devices- every student’s package of M&Ms dangled, unopened and unnoticed, centimeters from falling onto the floor.

Instead of consuming the M&Ms, my students let literary analysis consume them.

Instead of taking me up on my shameless candy bribe, my students analyzed and debated and wrote, forgetting about the candy and showing an all-consuming and authentic love of learning.

At Breakthrough, students aren’t interested in bribes. They don’t want to be told the answers. They don’t ache for concepts to be easy. They don’t crave simplicity.

At Breakthrough, students are interested in the difficult concepts. They want to be challenged. They ache for critical thinking. And, most of all, they crave a chance to learn.

The Art of Co-teaching

By: Sonia Pothraj and Jake Peacock, Chemistry
July 9, 2014

Sonia Pothraj Jake Peacock

Jake: To start us off, I am Jake Peacock, 2nd year teacher at Breakthrough Houston. I rocked the Math TA position last summer (sorry Angie) and then decided to switch sides and join the enemy sci-ENCE department this summer. I am in the midst of teaching Chemistry this summer with none other than my co-dip (an affectionate substitute for co-teacher), Sonia Pothraj.

Sonia: I’m Sonia Pothraj (aka co-dips with Peacock), a first year BTH teacher teaching eighth grade Chemistry. I recently graduated as a junior from Rice University and will be pursuing a Masters in Public Health at UT School of Public Health in Houston.

Jake: Anyway, I did not even talk to Sonia for more than a ten second introduction on the night of the first dinner. I was not only scared of her because she was my elder, but also nervous about how we would get along. I’m certain most if not all teaching fellows felt this first dinner angst.

Sonia: When I first met Jake, I was a little intimidated, not only by his blonde, frat-boy look and St. John’s High School background, but also by his past experience working at BTH last summer and the high praise I had heard from Kathy and mutual friends who had also participated in the program last year. However, once we filled out the co-teacher forms, it became clear to me that we would work well together. Both of us had written 72 degrees Fahrenheit as our ideal work environment and we both came across as chill, calm individuals (professionally not socially).

Jake: However, Sonia and I struck up our friendship in the first few days of O-Week, our immaturity levels matched. Our jokes to each other were on point, and we laughed harder together than I had in a long long time. We clicked together well, for some reason, even though we are completely different people, we found each other’s company extremely enjoyable.

Sonia: Nowadays, we spend most of our days cracking jokes on jokes and goofing off in a good ol’ fashioned fun/middle school type way. In terms of work, we alternate the days we do lesson plans and trust in each other (both in terms of teaching ability and lesson planning organization/coherence). Really the only concern in our relationship has been our differences in opinion over powerpoint theme.

Spreading the Magic

By: Sarah Joy Yockey, Writing
July 2, 2014

Sarah Joy Yockey

It happened when I wasn’t looking. From the back of my 9th grade writing class, I raised my head from talking with a student to scan the room, caught the act, and smiled to myself. He feels the magic.

It was a drafting day in my 9th grade writing class. After two weeks of thinking, collecting evidence, writing thesis statements, and outlining, my hardworking students had reached the point of putting sentences together on a page.

Everyone was busily writing at their desks, but under the writing resource sign, a student was pouring over a six-inch tall dictionary. I had rescued it from a book table, and placed it on a desk of honor at the front of the room. Yes, I thought to myself, the magic is working.

I have no procedures involving the huge, tattered dictionary, and I don’t require students to use it. Instead, each summer I have carefully placed it in the students’ sight to pique their curiosity. Then I wait.

One day, usually when I am not looking, a student sneaks out of their seat, unable to resist the dictionary’s pull any longer. Quietly, they flip through the pages, trace the words on the page with their fingers, and slip back into their seats equipped with new information.

Last summer, it was the student who called me over to verify that the word he had found was indeed the correct spelling of “entrepreneur.” This summer, it was a student checking the definition to make sure his word meant what he wanted it to. They are the brave souls who take the first steps out of curiosity.

After the first, there are always more. Soon, I start taking requests. The spell of the dictionary spreads, bewitching even the most reluctant writers finishing their assignments in advisory each morning.

I teach at Breakthrough for the magic. I returned this summer for the students, for the love of words, and for the opportunity to create places in which 9th graders approach even the dictionary with eagerness.

Coming Back

By: Mayank Agrawal, Algebra
June 25, 2014

Mayank Agrawal
It has begun again: the waking up at 4:30 AM, the 10-11 hour work days, and another summer with some of the greatest people I will ever get to know in my life.

This summer will be my third at Breakthrough Houston and my second as a full-fledged teacher (I was a Teaching Assistant my first year).

Although it hasn’t been even two weeks yet, I have already noticed tremendous growth among my students since last year. The quiet, reluctant 7th grader has blossomed into a vocal 8th grade leader. The student who needed extra time to understand basic concepts is now continually solving challenge problems. And, unfortunately, some of these kids are now even taller than me.

As a returning teacher, I do have extra responsibilities. Added to the daily bustle that is already Breakthrough, these responsibilities can definitely be quite stressful at times. But every day, I am reminded of the fact that all of this work is for the kids.

When you ask any returning Breakthrough teacher why they came back, it will always be because of the students. Seeing such motivated students gives us teachers enough reason to spend countless hours lesson planning and making PowerPoints. Their energy and zest when they come early in the morning and cheer about moose (we really like moose at Breakthrough) is contagious. The kids’ enthusiasm never fails to lift our spirits when we feel the slightest bit down.

I’m also extremely lucky to work with some amazing faculty members. Though we all come from different backgrounds, we’re able to bond over our shared mission for education reform. I learn so much simply from being around them – they each have their own unique viewpoints, ranging from social issues to best burrito joints (sorry y’all, Chipotle wins here). They inspire me to be a better teacher, and person, every single day.

I am thrilled for this summer – it has already been a strong start. Building relationships with these students and my fellow teachers will make it all worth it. The best part about Breakthrough is the community it fosters, and I’m excited to see us grow even closer in these upcoming weeks. Let’s do this, y’all.